BOXER A SMRŤ – BOXER AND DEATH (1962)
Director: Peter Solan
Script: Józef Hen, Tibor Vichta, Peter Solan
Music: Wiliam Bukový
Cinematography: Tibor Biath
Cast: Štefan Kvietik, Manfred Krug, Valentina Thielová,
Józef Kondrat, Edwin Marian

vlcsnap-2014-11-23-17h53m13s100Like many Slovak directors, Peter Solan attended school at FAMU. Upon graduating, Solan worked on documentaries and then later spent a bulk of his time directing television films and feature films. It wasn’t until the seventies that Solan was forced to work solely on documentaries because of politics. BOXER A SMRŤ is an adaptation of a book by Polish writer Józef Hen that he based on the real-life prisoner, Tadeusz Borowski. Before Solan could even begin shooting the film, it was already on a rocky road. The original script was banned and Polish director Wanda Jakubowska (OSTATNI ETAP, 1947) dropped out of assisting the film. On top of this, Józef Hen and {eter Solan rewrote the script several times before deciding on a final draft. Also interesting to note is the international cast comprised of Slovak, Czech, Polish and German actors.
vlcsnap-2014-11-23-17h53m24s6BOXER A SMRŤ begins with a group of escapees, including the main character Komínek (Štefan Kvietik), who are being punished. The commander, Kraft (Manfred Krug), recognizes Komínek as a boxer when he dodges Kraft’s punches. Excited at the attempt of having a real sparring partner, Kraft relieves Komínek of his punishment in return for a match. Komínek can barely fight from the exhaustion and suffering of the concentration camp, so Kraft sets him on a training regimen and gives him extra food. At first, the prisoners respond negatively to Komínek’s special treatment, but he eventually befriends an older prisoner who used to be a boxing trainer. As Komínek begins to regain his strength, he soon understands that he is a better fighter than Kraft, but in order to protect himself he must limit his abilities.  While out on a run with the commander, Komínek meets a farmer’s daughter and returns to tell his trainer about the girl. Komínek learns from his trainer that the girl is the key to their escape and he must warn her that they plan to escape. Unfortunately, Komínek is restricted from leaving the camp as tension mounts among the other Nazi officers about the special treatment of Komínek. Finally, there is an exhibition match between Komínek and Kraft in front of several Nazi officers. Komínek knocks down the commander several times but ultimately chooses to lose the unfair match. While they are boxing, his trainer is shot as a punishment for being Komínek’s friend. When Komínek learns of his friend’s death, he decides to fight the commander in a one-round match and knock him out, which he does. Kraft accuses Komínek of hitting below the belt and orders him to be gassed, but changes his mind when he decides the prisoners will spread the rumor of his defeat. Instead, Komínek is given a free pass to leave the camp, but Komínek understands that it will be viewed as an escape and his block will be gassed as punishment. Komínek begs Kraft to not hurt his fellow prisoners and Kraft agrees, but while walking away from the camp he hears the alarms of the furnace.
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vlcsnap-2014-11-23-17h54m39s246  BOXER A SMRŤ is mostly concerned with the central theme of fair play and the power dynamics involved with it. Komínek quickly learns that he can beat his opponent, but he has to limit himself, as he understands that defeating Kraft will, at the very least, lead to his own death. At the same time, Kraft understands he is selecting an opponent who is a starving prisoner. At first, Kraft embraces the idea of fair play by assisting in helping Komínek regain his strength, but soon the other Nazi leaders question Kraft’s decision-making. By the end of the film, both central characters are breaking the rules of fair play: Komínek is disguising his skill and misleading Kraft into thinking he is a weaker opponent; Kraft lies in his accusation of Komínek hitting below the belt, and regarding the later punishment of Komínek’s fellow inmates. This backdrop of misleading an authority figure in order to survive is the perfect backdrop for a much more contemporary conversation in Czechoslovakia at 1962.
Solan  captures this wide gap in fair play with one of the final scenes in BOXER A SMRŤ. In the exhibition match between the two boxers, we see both Komínek’s boxing skill in outfighting Kraft and his ability to hide his skill from his opponent. While they are fighting, his trainer is forced to climb a hill of barbwire, and upon reaching the summit he is shot in the back. As the fight enters its final rounds, Komínek begins to truly grasp the punishment he would face by beating Kraft. Additionally, the fight’s bias can be seen in the counting – when Kraft is knocked down, the counting is impossibly slow when compared to Komínek being knocked down.
BOXER A SMRŤ is like many other great Slovak films, tight in both its presentation and message. The murdering that occurs in the camp is never shown and almost never discussed, only occasionally are we haunted by scenes with the chimney smoke billowing in the background. BOXER A SMRŤ also never wastes time in setting up emotional back-stories to the characters, simply relying on the audiences’ ability to connect to their personal idea of struggle.  Solan opts out of showing violence enacted in the camp, but instead offers scenes where prisoners discuss ending their lives, with the only graphic scene being the trainer’s ascent on the barbwire hill. The real tragedy in Solan’s BOXER A SMRŤ is the misleading view of Komínek’s ascending strength, which is only a farce.
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BOXER A SMRŤ is available as a region free, PAL, English friendly DVD from SME.
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